Sunday, 16 November 2014

And There's More....

I expect most of you may have watched this before (unlike me!!), but Tom Carroll from Dublin has just highlighted it to me...
BBC IPlayer Autumnwatch 2014 Episode 4 Starting c. 42 minutes 50seconds in. Strangford Lough - superb!!
Please feel free to highlight any other programmes dealing with brent geese that you find, so that we can share...

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A Couple of our Contributors in Their Own Habitat (BUT you need to be quick!!)...

On a slightly different tack, I thought some of you might like to see a couple of our ring-readers / goose catchers in a slightly different light, as they have both contributed to TV programmes over the past week. This is particularly as both programmes show something of what the sites are like.

Firstly, Hugh Thurgate, with the National Trust on Strangford Lough, Co. Down, takes viewers for boat trips on Strangford Lough, first showing their new ferry to transport cattle to and from the islands for habitat management, then talking about seals in the Lough, with Ben Fogle. This is currently on UTV Player, if you look up "Countrywise" for 10 November 2014, and starts c. 08:30 minutes in.

The other is Paddy Dwan, who is an expert on the Tramore Backstrand, Co. Waterford, and has recently co-authored a book on the site. He and his co-author, Mark Roper, do a piece on the wildlife (including brent geese) of the area on RTE nationwide last night, 14 November 2014, which currently can be found on RTE Player, and starts c. 18:45 minutes in.

Friday, 14 November 2014

So, Where Have We All Been....??!!

Apologies to all of you who have been trying to follow the blog, and thought we'd all migrated ourselves!! Unfortunately, this may happen from time to time, either because there is nothing meaningful to report, or more likely because we have been busy (or like to think we have been!!).
In this case we have been doing things on three fronts:

Looking for potential catch sites:

One possibility which was being actively researched was this site at Mill Bay on the County Down side of Carlingford Lough. A local farmer dumps potatoes on the edge of the mudflats, and the geese can't resist the chance to come in and "scobe" at them - not sure whether this is a "Norn-Iron" (Northern Ireland) speciality word , but it means scraping (and chewing off bits) at them with their bills to eat.

We have tried here before, but not been successful, and again the lack of time to "recce" the site, which is not very close to any of our houses, seems to have beaten us, as numbers had halved from the original [220] on 01 November, when this photo was taken, down to 124 a week ago, and today there were only about a dozen. But this illustrates the importance of very regular "recce" work - the birds have very much got choice on where they are using, and it's a VERY small net!!

Ring-reading on Strangford Lough:

Again I have highlighted in an earlier blog the need to try and read marked birds amongst the massive flocks, as they pass through Strangford Lough. The statistics as I write this blog are, I think, impressive, as a core team of us (added to, of course, by casual records from many of you, which are always useful and valuable) have amassed 2,653 records of 936 individual birds, which is way above what we had managed by this stage last winter. Overall, the resighting figures this year to date are 3,038 and 1,100 respectively, so well done everyone!

Brent Goose Census:

Rather later than normal, the annual autumn Census was taking place last weekend. This has meant that birds have been much more dispersed than usual, but, thanks to all of you who responded to a VERY late call, it looks like we have been able to do a proper co-ordinated "snap-shot" across the wintering range in November. This is possibly the first specific brent survey for that month. Results are still being collated, but watch this space when we have finalised on this!

Sorry again for the gap in blog. If any of you have anything you'd like covered, please just let us know!!

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Catch (-up) Time!!

Hi Folks,
Sorry there has been a break in communications. The guys from University of Exeter have been over at Strangford Lough, and, with two canon-netters (Stuart Bearhop from UoE, and local, Kerry Mackie from WWT) around, combined with a variety of helpers from across the country, it has been all hands-on-deck, trying to catch birds on the inter-tidal zone. Historically these early-season catches have been particularly difficult, as the birds are flighty, and not easy to "twinkle" (our term for walking the birds into the net!).
So it has proven again. Yesterday saw 8 geese, all adults, caught at Greyabbey, and today, in high winds, following a THIRD positioning of a net, the "lone ranger", which was a juvenile. As a lone juvenile, this was of some concern, but, on release, it was thankfully observed to fly off with another bird.

Net setting shot:

The "Lone Ranger":

Tomorrow sees more recce work, hopefully for a last chance catch (this time!) on Monday!

Friday, 17 October 2014

Strangford Lough - This is as Good as it Gets!!

For those of you who have never visited, Strangford Lough is a hive of goose activity around now! It has been estimated that at least 75% of the flyway (East Canadian High Arctic) population of pale-bellied brent goose pass through the site, located just a few kilometres SW of Belfast, with peak numbers usually occurring in early October.
Today saw the latest count there, and organiser, Kerry Mackie tells me that, give or take a few thousand geese, there are 23,500 present at the moment. In rough terms, this is the same number as the last count, on last Friday.
Because, at this stage, much of the zostera, or eel grass, which is the goose's favourite food, has already been depleted, the geese start scavenging for what remains across the mud-flats after the tide goes out. This, therefore, makes it prime time for ring-reading! Whilst I was not personally involved in the count, I was out today with my telescope, and took the attached photograph which shows the wind-blown scene at "The Maltings" car park, near Newtownards.

With the Iconic Scrabo Tower in the background, and taken with a point-and-shoot camera, you can see how accessible the birds can be, so my message to those of you who haven't been out, or even ever visited the Lough - PLEASE go have a look, and see if you can manage to read a ring for the Group - they'll never be more plentiful nor accessible there this winter.
Recording ringed birds at Strangford Lough is extremely valuable to the Group. I'm a bit behind on looking at what is coming in at the moment, due to fieldwork, but, by 13 October 2014, a small group of us had recorded 574 individuals, and this count is rising rapidly all the time. On the other hand, the number of "casual" records coming in has been rather disappointing. Some of these birds will not appear again over the rest of the winter, as they will disappear into a small, undetected bay somewhere, so recording them now, on Strangford Lough, helps us look at survival rates, etc.
(Incidentally, I recorded 87 individuals today, which shows how worthwhile the effort can be, even in non-optimal weather. The golden rule is to start looking two hours after the projected high tide. Over this weekend, HW is (approx.) 10.15 on Sat, 11.19 on Sun.)

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

How Productive Can a Survey Be...

Every so often, and particularly around now, when numbers are peaking and concentrated at Strangford Lough, we try and sample the flocks, to determine how good a breeding season it has been.
Today has been one of those days, and Kerry Mackie, Alex Portig and myself have been out attempting to sample the proportion of juveniles, and trying to determine the average family brood size.
Now, hot off the press, I can tell you (thanks, Kerry for collating the data) that, between us, we managed to age a very respectable 8,827 geese. Of these, 3.1% were juveniles from this summer's breeding in Canada ( VERY noticeable at this stage of the winter by the white lines down their back feathers (adults are uniform black), or, less importantly, by their absent or less pronounced neck mark). This percentage young figure is likely to be higher than actual, as many of the unsurveyed flocks present were massed way out at the edge of the mud-flats beyond the definition of our scopes (such flocks are known historically to include very few young). In the sample, 96 families averaged a brood of 2.2 juveniles.
The increase in larger families has been noticeable over the past week, which, as already reported, as seen the arrival of some of our larger Canadian-ringed families.
Given that we were recording very small families earlier, these results are a bit of a relief, particularly as the 2013/2014 year was, to all intents and purposes, a near total wash-out for breeding.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Babes are Back in Town!!...

Just like the buses, you wait and wait, and then suddenly two come along together!!
We have been waiting for the first of the family groups, which we ringed out on Axel Heiberg Island in the extreme north of Canada in late July/ early August, to appear.
This morning I had a text from Alex Portig, who was at the other side of the (Strangford!) Lough from where I was (we try to co-ordinate our ring-reading to maximise the use of our time). He was at Finlay's Road, and said that he had picked up the family group VNRB (in "our" speak - this is V right leg, N left leg, R ed right leg-ring colour, B lue left leg-ring colour), with its mate, VURB, and family, 9CRB, 9KRB, 9URB and 9ZRB. This family was caught as part of our last catch, on 02 August 2014, at Stang Bay, which, at about 80.5 degrees North, is the most northerly ever catch for the species. At this stage, these young were quite big - the attached photo was of these birds before ringing (and also note the arid conditions of the Arctic Desert) :

Then, around lunchtime, I received an email from Kane Brides, who receives colour-ringing submissions for all wildfowl species which are reported directly to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, and then farms them out to the individual ringing groups. This indicated that another family had been recorded from the island of Islay, located off the west coast of Scotland, on 07 October 2014, reported by the RSPB Loch Gruinart Senior Warden, Mary Redman. This time the family was UKRB, with its mate USRB, and a single ringed juvenile, 7HRB. These birds were caught on 29 July 2014, further down Axel Heiberg Island, nearer to our camp. The photograph below shows the birds in this catch being herded into the net by "our" helicopter (with apologies for the dust "blob" which gathered on my camera lens!).

One thing to be said about these families. As with our last Expedition, in 2007, the size of the "chicks" when ringed is such that we have fitted smaller rings, so the juveniles, if you come across them, will have rings which may be much more difficult to read. Indeed, during our catches in 2014, we were able to replace quite a few of the juvenile rings from 2007. If you come across a Red/Blue bird, it will ALWAYS have been ringed out in Canada on the breeding grounds, as we have reserved this combination for birds marked there.
Whilst speaking about families, the increase in the numbers of these over the past week has been noticeable at Strangford Lough, and average brood size is increasing as well, so it will be interesting to see what productivity and average brood sizes the annual Census produces.